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'Parkland' review: Dave Cullen on the Florida school shooting survivors who launched a movement

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, participate in a 2018 peace march in Chicago. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Scott Olson

PARKLAND: Birth of a Movement, by Dave Cullen. Harper, 385 pp., $27.99.

Last March, high school students on Long Island and across the United States participated in a 17-minute school walkout commemorating the 17 victims of the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Ten days later, the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., drew hundreds of thousands of participants and inspired hundreds of similar marches throughout the world. In the middle of her speech at the D.C. event, Parkland student Emma González observed 6 minutes and 20 seconds of silence — the duration of the shooting. Her shaved head and flowing tears became the image of the movement.

For most kids involved, these anti-gun protests were their first independent political activity, and you could see it in their faces, in the hashtag slogans on their signs, in their energy as they poured down the streets. (I watched one of the marches from the sidewalk, as my Baltimore high school senior marched with her school.) What was even more remarkable was that these national events were organized completely by a small group of Parkland students who had come together after the shooting.

The story of those students is told in "Parkland," researched and written in the 10 months following the shooting, published on its anniversary. Author Dave Cullen is known for "Columbine" (2009), an acclaimed account of what has become our recurring national nightmare. 

Since the Columbine shooting, according to Cullen, 683 lives have been lost in 81 mass shootings and Cullen has become "the mass murder guy," his phone blowing up with calls from the media after each new tragedy. But after he himself began to suffer from a form of PTSD, sobbing all day and unable to work, his shrink laid down the law — tight restrictions on victim stories and survivor interviews. "I swore I would never go back," Cullen writes.

Though he broke his promise, those resolutions shape the new book. Cullen avoids depicting the carnage or digging into the grief. "What drew me was the group of extraordinary kids," he explains, and the "story of hope" they created. He also resolved not to write about the shooter, nor even to mention his name. "The Parkland kids seemed to have accidentally solved the problem of celebrity shooters simply by becoming bigger celebrities themselves."

Cullen does give a brief account of students' experiences on the day itself, and some information on the actions of the perpetrator. The only detailed victim story is that of Joaquin Oliver, whose dad, known as Tío Manny, painted Parkland-inspired murals all over the country, then sledgehammered 17 holes into each one and filled those holes with sunflowers. "He chose sunflowers because the night before the tragedy, Joaquin had asked him to pick up some flowers for his girlfriend for Valentine's Day. Manny's last image of Joaquin is him holding the sunflowers as he hopped out of the car at school that morning, saying, "I love you, Dad."

That passage is the single time I teared up while reading "Parkland." Instead of lingering on heartbreaking stories about the victims, Cullen offers detailed portraits of the movers and shakers of MFOL: David and Lauren Hogg (who are writing their own book, sold to Random House two months after shooting) Cameron Kasky, Jackie Corin and several others. Hogg was the first to address pleas to Congress on national television; Kasky the first to tweet #NEVERAGAIN; Corin the organizer behind the scenes. (Emma González, with 1.6 million Twitter followers, did not agree to be interviewed for the book.)

Cullen was there when the Parkland kids met with legislators, when they got home and continued rehearsals of "Spring Awakening," a play whose themes tied into the tragedy; he was there as they wearily managed logistics of their summer #ROADTOCHANGE bus tour. This was the point where the immersive detail began to lose its hold on my attention.

At a meeting the students had with Columbine survivors, they heard the answer a Columbine teacher had given to another teacher, a Sandy Hook survivor, who wanted to know when she would get her life back. "Never," the Columbine teacher said. "That woman is gone. You are never getting her back. You will get past this, and you will do amazing things in your life, but it will be a different you than you once were. And you will never begin that path out of the pain until you let go of that woman and say goodbye."

This is what this book could have been about, and almost is, but Cullen's intentional curtailing of emotional intensity — plus the brevity of the window into the kids' lives — work against it. Even so, "Parkland" is an unexpectedly lively chronicle with a powerful message.

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